Serbian Lutherans Unhappy with the West

No Quick and Easy Fix


Referring to the NATO bombings, Zivica Tucic, an Orthodox theologian in Belgrade, says: "The West has fallen prey to the temptation of a quick and easy fix." Citing 1. Corinthians 10 he continues: "All may be possible for the West, but not everything is expedient." In view of Western reluctance to fund UN peacekeepers in Kosovo before the bombing began, he concludes that Westerners have been more willing to finance war than peace. More than a few Serb Christians insist humanitarianism was not the true reason for the Kosovo incursion, but only a smoke screen for installing a robust NATO presence in the Balkans.


For Jan Valent, bishop of Serbia's "Slovak Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession", his northern province of Voyvodina is a long way from Kosovo. "What does Voyvodina have to do with Kosovo?" he asks. The coexistence of our 30+ minorities "has been a model for the world". Why did precisely our bridges and refineries need to be destroyed?


But the likelihood of Yugoslavs uncoupling themselves from the West is remote. Though the US-embassy in Belgrade is shuttered and battered, the lines of young adults encompassing the Canadian embassy desperate to leave Serbia behind have not been shortened by the bombings. Undoubtedly, Yugoslavia's destruction and reconstruction will be funded by the same countries, for there is no one else capable of doing so. "We may be Europe's tail," Bishop Valent concedes, "but we still belong to Europe."


Despite claims to the contrary, the Voyvodina's multi-ethnic society is far from serene. A children's retreat center in Feketic run by the "Ecumenical Humanitarian Organization" (EHO) struggles to bring together children of Hungarian, Rumanian, Slovak, Serbian and Roma backgrounds. Yet any cross-cultural involvement by Protestants with Serbian children can quickly evoke cries of proselytism from conservative Orthodox clergy. In another instance, the Orthodox bishop of Novi Sad, Irenej, withdrew permission for Protestants to feed 50 particularly needy Orthodox elderly. "That was a death warrant!" one progressive Orthodox source claims.


Yet even Lutherans have lofted the cry of proselytism. The Lutheran pastor in a town near Novi Sad has strongly resisted a Bible school and evangelism center formed by Baptist and Brethren circles 10 years ago. He says the center is "taking its bricks from my wall".


But his bishop champions unity and cooperation. Jan Valent claims: "I wanted to be a part of this evangelistic center when it started. We Christians would be stronger if we were together." Indeed, he has called for a union between the Lutheran, Reformed and Methodist churches of the Voyvodina. Not someone to quickly trash the bygone concept of a united Yugoslavia, he has appealed for unification of the Lutheran churches of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.


Now the Missouri Synod's "Lutheran Laymen's League" has committed itself to establishing an evangelistic center within Lutheran headquarters in Novi Sad. Radio programs such as "The Lutheran Hour" and literature in Serbian and Slovak are in the offing. "I am grateful for any church or organization willing to lend us a hand," the Bishop insists. He believes North American Lutherans need to solve their differences at home.


Increased evangelism will raise thorny issues for the 50,000 Lutherans of northern Serbia. The Reformed have dropped "Hungarian" from their name - should Lutherans be doing likewise? For the fledgling Lutheran congregation in Kragujevac, central Serbia, the adjective "Slovak" has no appeal. But increased work among Serbs will lead to heightened tensions with the Orthodox.


Bill Yoder is editor of "Wort und Werk" in Berlin

Berlin, 27 January 2000


Appeared in edited form in “The Lutheran”, Chicago/USA, 569 words